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Interview with an Environmental Educator: Joining Together

As a community, we can do better by joining forces. Collectively we can empower larger audiences and, I believe, shift the trajectory of our planet’s future.”

Elise Dillingham: Program Coordinator, Desert Research Learning Center

What is your professional role and how does Environmental Education help you do that work? 

My professional role is the Program Coordinator of the National Park Service’s Desert Research Learning Center (DRLC). The DRLC is home to a diverse team of scientists that oversee the inventory and monitoring of natural resources at Sonoran Desert national parks (11 total). In addition to conducting research, DRLC staff utilize environmental education to promote the scientific understanding, protection, and conservation of Sonoran Desert national parks. Environmental education enables us to share the marvel of the Sonoran Desert, facilitate science communication, and inspire the next generation of environmental stewards. 

Who is your primary audience in your work and what outreach do you offer that audience? 

The DRLC’s primary audience is high school and college students ranging in age from 14-22.  We provide internships, citizen science and volunteer opportunities, and programs for student groups.

Why is Environmental Education important to the work that you do?

Environmental education is important to our work because it enables engagement of diverse audiences outside traditional land management realms. It elevates the visibility of science in the National Park Service and increases awareness of conservation issues facing national parks. At the DRLC, environmental education enables scientists to reach broad audiences beyond our peers, which builds support for science and reinforces its relevance.

What are your entry points for engaging your audiences in Environmental Education, Environmental Studies, science, etc.?

Sonoran Desert flora and fauna that exist in urban settings are an entry point for environmental education. We often use these familiar and seemingly mundane species to open doors into the wondrous natural history and ecology of the Sonoran Desert.

 

Who do you consider underrepresented audiences and what are the challenges you face in reaching them?

Students with disabilities are one underrepresented audience that we have actively been trying to reach. Accessibility in outdoor settings is one challenge that we must overcome when engaging with this audience. To help overcome this, we offer programs designed for people with disabilities and have increased wheelchair-accessible activities and amenities at the DRLC. 

How can we all do better?

I believe the strength of the EE community lies in the knowledge of educators, the curiosity of students, and the passion of both. These attributes foster critical thinking and innovation, which are desperately needed to combat our planet’s climate emergency. As a community, we can do better by joining forces. Collectively we can empower larger audiences and, I believe, shift the trajectory of our planet’s future. The more we collaborate and play off each other’s strengths, the better.

AAEE Celebrates Earth Day!

The year is 1970. Over 500,000 copies of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring have been sold in over 24 countries, civic engagement is on the rise, and awareness of the connection between environmental and human health has entered dinner table conversations in homes across America. Gaylord Nelson, a senator from Wisconsin, announces a plan for a “national teach-in on the environment,” and the idea for Earth Day is born. April 22, 1970, and over 20 million Americans take to the parks, auditoriums, and town halls to join the national conversation about how to address the growing concerns. Earth Day unified voters from all parties and walks of life, legislators came together and signed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency into law, and the nation united for the health of the planet and generations to come.

Forty-eight years later, in honor of these national commitments and in pursuit of our organization’s vision, AAEE joined millions across the globe coming together to celebrate the Earth and engage in these same conversations, collaborating with communities to reconnect with and protect our natural resources. For Earth Day, the AAEE co-sponsored the Kid’s Earth Day Celebration in the heart of downtown of Prescott, Arizona. With a focus on Nelson’s original “teach-in” concepts, the kid’s area was dedicated to learning through exploration & fun.

Over 280 children from the Tri-City Area surrounding Prescott attended the event with their families, indicating well over 200 seeds planted, faces painted with local critters, natural bird feeders made, nature objects explored, healthy snacks consumed, environmental scavenger hunts completed, and so much more! AAEE also gave away free nature-based kids’ books to any young Earth Day explorers stopping by our table. 

Like all of AAEE’s work, this event was made possible by collaboration with formal and non-formal environmental education organizations of Arizona and the efforts of dedicated volunteers. This year, we united with four other programs: Educational Expeditions, the Center for Nature and Place-based Early Childhood Education, Yavapai Cooperative Extension SNAP-Ed, and the Prescott Community Gardens, to collaboratively create an interdisciplinary and exciting space for kids. Environmental Education students from Prescott College designed and prepared many of the activities as well. Big thanks to those 15 student-volunteers that showed up armed with green bandanas, 60 paint brushes and gallons of paint, 1 guitar, 2 pirate costumes, 200 pine cones, pounds of peanut butter, a wild assortment of nature objects, and a whole lot of enthusiasm, collaboratively creating a day filled with enough Earth celebration to inspire us all year long. Nelson’s dream for a “national teach-in” with communities coming together united by environmental education lives on.